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Is premium economy worth the money? This American Airlines flight convinced me it is

Sept. 11, 2022
17 min read
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Editor's note: This story has been updated


Before joining TPG, I had never flown premium economy. But since becoming a travel reporter, I've flown three premium economy long-haul flights to Europe, which means I now have some points of comparison. Those trips included a less-than-stellar experience in premium economy on French Bee and a better, but still unremarkable, trip on British Airways that left me feeling like I'd be better off just sticking to plain old economy.

I just haven't found the higher ticket price for premium economy over coach to be worth it until now.

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In April, I had the opportunity to try my third premium economy product, flying an American Airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner to Chicago from Paris.

While I expected American Airlines' premium economy to be somewhat similar to the flight on British Airways, I was happy to find that it outperformed British Airways on several fronts, including the seat, the food and beverage and service and other offerings on board.

The theme of this review is more — more seat and legroom space, more entertainment options and more variety in the beverages and food available. As you might have guessed, the experience kept me wanting ... more.

Here's why I thought flying American Airlines premium economy was worth it.

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Booking

CAROLINE TANNER/THE POINTS GUY

When I flew premium economy on British Airways last summer (my first premium economy flight) from Washington's Dulles International Airport (IAD) to London's Heathrow Airport (LHR), I was largely disappointed. Though most of my criticism at the time centered around Britsh Airways' lack of COVID-19 protocol enforcement, I ultimately concluded that paying double the price of a coach ticket for premium economy was not worth the small amount of extra legroom, recline or width of the seats.

Still, I decided to give the premium economy experience another try from Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (ORD) on my way back from French Bee's inaugural L.A.-Paris flight. American Airlines offers a once-daily, non-stop service to Chicago from Paris — AA flight 151 departs CDG at 4:05 p.m. and arrives at ORD at 6:15 p.m. In my case, I had a tight connection to St. Louis, so keep that in mind if you are booking a connecting flight since even a little delay or long lines at customs and immigration can derail your plans.

For my one-way ticket, we redeemed 62,500 AAdvantage miles, worth around $1,106 according to TPG valuations. That seemed like a pretty solid redemption since cash prices for one-way tickets were running more than $3,400 at the time.

Premium economy fares for this route are hovering around $2,100 one-way for the rest of the year (increasing in price around the holidays), but if you book a round trip, you can grab premium economy seats for around $2,000-$2,500 total most days. Though saver award availability is nonexistent at the moment, you can find premium economy awards on this specific route for rates ranging from 75,000 AAdvantage miles up to 127,000 miles, one-way, plus taxes and fees. If you want to book this route this year, your best redemption opportunity will be a weekday flight in November.

As with any award redemption, check mileage rates versus cash fares to ensure you're getting a decent deal, like in the above example.

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Be sure to use our Awards versus Cash calculator to compare the exact amount you would save between using cash versus miles in booking flights.

Read more: I flew this French low-cost airline from LA to Paris and wouldn't do it again

Ground experience

When I arrived at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport for my flight, Terminal 2A was quite hectic, with large crowds and long lines. It was less busy at the American Airlines counters, but there was no option for self check-in, so I got in the priority line thanks to my AAdvantage Gold status (premium economy and business-class passengers could also use these lines).

I waited in line for 10 minutes before an agent came over and verified I had proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within the previous 72 hours. (This is no longer a requirement to enter the U.S. but was at the time.) I was also required to fill out an attestation form that I wasn't experiencing any potential COVID-19 symptoms.

Including my time in line, the check-in process took around 25 minutes thanks to the extra paperwork and verification steps that were necessary at the time. After checking in, I joined the long security line, which took roughly 40 minutes to get through.

CAROLINE TANNER/THE POINTS GUY

Because neither my ticket nor a credit card in my wallet entitled me to lounge access, I just walked straight to my gate, A38. For those who have access, there is an Admirals Club located between terminals 2A and 2C.

I adopted a gluten- and dairy-free diet back in 2015, and since then, I've found it's safer not to rely on inflight food service, so I always bring snacks with me just in case. I had plenty of choices to stock up on in Terminal 2A, which had a location of the healthy grab-and-go chain Exki selling bottled juices and salads in addition to a Starbucks, which had Pipers Biggleswade Sweet Chilli Crisps (my favorites).

After purchasing some food and beverages, I walked over to my gate, which didn't have my flight information displayed yet since I had arrived at the airport three hours before departure. I settled in to get some work done, but it was a good thing my laptop was fully charged since there was only one standing charging station in the area, and only a few more plugs available nearby.

I charged my phone at the main station while chatting with a fellow traveler from Chicago whom I had met in security. Eventually, I had to use the restroom, which would have been an ordeal for travelers with accessibility issues. The only nearby facilities were located on a lower level. The escalator was out of service and there were no elevators. Travelers who use wheelchairs or have other mobility issues would not have had any choices on this particular day.

Boarding started four minutes late (not bad in 2022), but there didn't seem to be any order to it, let alone American Airlines' group-centric process. Everyone just boarded at the same time, and the priority lane seemed to be more of a suggestion than anything else.

That said, I was able to snap a few cabin and seat shots before my fellow passengers occupied them.

Related: Here's how to travel to France right now and what it's like once you arrive

Cabin and seat

CAROLINE TANNER/THE POINTS GUY

The premium economy cabin on this Boeing 787-9 aircraft consisted of 21 seats across three rows arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration. I'm so used to flying economy that I completely overshot the premium economy cabin and walked to the economy section — but I won't blame myself completely since it was just three rows.

I also managed to sit in the wrong seat. A flight attendant came by to verify my name, which is when I figured it out. (He said it was no problem since I would have the center section of three seats to myself anyway.)

Upon sitting down, the first thing I noticed was the width of the chair and the amount of space between my seat and the one in front of me, both of which were notable advantages of sitting in premium economy. My seat measured approximately 19 inches between the armrests, compared to the 17 inches offered in Main Cabin seats (which are in a much tighter 3-3-3 configuration), and had an additional 3-7 inches of pitch (38 inches compared to 35 inches in Main Cabin Extra and 31 in Main Cabin).

Having never flown long-haul business class before, this was the most comfortable inflight experience I've had to date, not only because of those extra inches but also because I had no seat neighbors.

It even allowed me to sleep for a few hours, something I'm usually unable to do on a plane. Beyond the extra legroom and seat width, there was a 7-inch recline — and unlike my British Airways premium economy flight, there was no inflight entertainment box in the storage space under the seat in front of me, so there was plenty of room for my feet.

That also would have left plenty of space for my backpack to fit nicely, but since there was ample overhead bin space, I put both of my carry-on bags up there. This left the entire under-seat space clear for my legs, a rare experience for me.

I should note that American Airlines' premium economy seats on long-haul flights are nearly identical to its domestic first-class recliners, so if you've flown up front within the U.S. recently, chances are you will recognize what's on board. Some of the added bells and whistles in premium economy include a footrest, though that might infringe on legroom for taller travelers, especially since some of them did not seem to stay in place. The seat also has an adjustable headrest, though it only moves forward and back rather than up or down for longer-necked flyers.

The 17-inch tray table, which extended out of the armrest and then unfolded, was large enough to accommodate my 16-inch MacBook Pro easily.

Read more: I flew premium economy for the first time: my coach mindset says it’s not worth the extra $

On my accidental walk back to the coach cabin, I got a peek at the seats there, of which there are nine per row -- two more than in premium economy. No wonder they're so tight.

Amenities and inflight entertainment

Many airlines include nice so-called "soft products" in premium economy -- those elements other than the seat, such as amenity kits, headphones and meal service -- that are slightly elevated from the regular economy experience — and I was surprised at how much the ones on American Airlines made a difference.

My favorite? A soft Casper pillow and blanket. While I wish I could afford a Casper mattress at home (they start at $1,300), this was my chance to try out at least a few of its products. I might start saving up since the lumbar pillow and day blanket on board were the most comfortable airplane pillow and blankets I've used yet. The blanket was lightweight but warm and stretched to cover my long legs.

Next time I'll have to try more products in Casper's American Airlines product line, including a mattress pad, pajamas and slippers, which are available when flying on select long-haul routes in business or first class.

The STATE-branded amenity kit the flight attendant handed me contained an eye mask, ear plugs, socks and Baxter lip balm and moisturizer plus a dental kit. I was also given a pair of basic (non-noise-canceling) headphones. While fairly limited, I appreciated the inclusions nonetheless.

I also appreciated the plethora of programming available on my 11-inch inflight entertainment screen. The options included libraries of content from HBO Max and Apple TV+, in addition to Apple Music. I hadn't seen Apple Music available on a flight before, and this is exclusive to American Airlines.

The other entertainment offerings included 207 movies (80 of which were released in 2022) plus 272 TV shows — though no full seasons were available, with two to four episodes max for most shows. Even so, this wide variety of programming should be noted for its scale, which is more than you'd find on many non-U.S. carriers.

Also available on the IFE screen were some typical features on newer widebodies, such as a highly detailed airshow and airport maps, which were helpful since I had a connecting flight in Chicago and wasn't sure how to transit between terminals (though truth be told, this was of limited use).

There were two USB-A ports and one universal power outlet in the armrest cubby, though the latter was obstructed by my seat cushion and my computer charger would not stay connected. To prevent it from falling out, I positioned my amenity kit and water bottle to keep it plugged in. Again, this was another small thing, yet inconvenient when you rely on charging your devices on board.

The internet was slow but consistent, registering a speed of 8.47 Mbps download and 0.78 Mbps upload. I paid $35 for a Wi-Fi flight pass that covered the full flight, rather than $29 for just a two-hour pass. I used it to get some work done, though if you are trying to upload or download anything significant, you'll likely have some issues. The service disconnected about 15 minutes before touchdown in Chicago.

CAROLINE TANNER/THE POINTS GUY

Finally, the premium economy cabin shares two lavatories with business class, and I never had to wait to use one throughout the flight. The lavatories were quite spacious and featured touchless flushing and sink options.

Related: Perfectly fine but nothing more: American Airlines premium economy across the Atlantic

Food and beverage

Shortly after boarding, the flight attendant who had asked if I was in the right seat also confirmed I had ordered a special meal for lunch, which I was happy to confirm since I had requested a vegetarian/vegan meal online before my flight.

CAROLINE TANNER/THE POINTS GUY

Ensuring there are meals I can eat on flights has proven challenging since no airline tends to guarantee that a meal is both dairy and gluten-free.

Shortly after takeoff, we were handed bottled water with a bag of pretzels and offered a soft drink. I ordered a ginger ale.

The first meal service began at 5 p.m., approximately an hour into the flight. The other passengers had the choice between chicken with orzo pasta and grilled veggies or a vegetarian option, which was korma with panner cheese, spicy spinach and basmati rice.

The flight attendant served me my special meal by hand before serving the rest of the cabin. It even arrived on real china rather than in a TV dinner-style tray and turned out to be a delicious assortment of vegetable dishes.

Excluding the pretzel bun and a small salad bowl that had cheese in it, I was able to eat everything else. The meal included basmati rice with a spicy red sauce served alongside carrots and green beans, a salad with mushrooms and tomatoes and a fruit salad and applesauce. I appreciated the vegan butter, and the dressing also passed the vegan test (airlines often label dressing containing dairy as being suitable for vegans, but it's not).

The meal was fresh, though bland, but I was just happy that nearly everything on my tray was something I could eat. The green salad was the best part, though the tomatoes and mushrooms didn't taste too fresh.

Passengers were also offered a choice of red or white wine, but since I don't drink, I ordered AHA lime watermelon sparkling water, another first for me while flying. On previous flights, I've only seen tonic water on offer.

A variety of other alcoholic beverages, 10 sodas and four juices were available, including Diet Dr. Pepper; tonic water and club soda; Sam Adams 76 Lager; Bacardi vodka; Bailey's Irish Cream; Bombay Sapphire gin; Minute Maid apple juice; a cranberry apple cocktail mix; Mr & Mrs T Original Bloody Mary mix and Truly Hard Seltzer, which I haven't seen on an airline before.

Following dinner, ice cream was served at 8:30 p.m. I didn't partake, but the flight attendant and I discussed the ice cream brand, Beckleberry's, which was a favorite of hers from the U.K.

Since I love snacks, I was slightly disappointed to see there was no midflight snack served nor was there a snack basket at any time. So far, I've only experienced a snack tray once when I got upgraded to business class on a regional flight from STL-ORD, the first of five flights on my round-trip journey from St. Louis to Paris.

But since I slept in between dinner and breakfast, I wasn't feeling particularly hungry and got by without a snack.

About an hour before landing, breakfast service began, with coffee and tea served 14 minutes later. Because of my dietary restrictions, I had again selected a special meal. And although I respected the creative attempt, the glass noodle dish I was given didn't have much flavor and was just accompanied by some peanuts, so I mainly enjoyed the fruit salad and skipped the milk chocolate cake and breadsticks served alongside it.

Read more: 9 things I've learned about points and miles in my 10 months at The Points Guy

Service

I primarily interacted with two flight attendants who were both friendly and helpful, though they were charged with serving premium economy and the main cabin, so they weren't on hand as much as you'd find in business class. A call button page was answered in about three minutes -- not long for economy, but not what you'd expect in a higher class of service. For premium economy, it felt pretty much par for the course.

They also passed through the cabin occasionally to offer drinks but left passengers alone for the middle few hours of the flight.

Bottom line

CAROLINE TANNER/THE POINTS GUY

Overall, I enjoyed my third premium economy long-haul flight much more than my first two thanks to the spacious seats, including the under-seat legroom, overhead bin space and available lavatories.

Extra surprises like the Casper pillow and blanket, cold water on demand and full-sized cans of both ginger ale and flavored seltzer water, not to mention a vegan salad dressing that was actually vegan and an extensive offering of entertainment programming made this flight a win in my book.


Featured image by (Photo by Caroline Tanner/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
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  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases